16 Easy Ways for Improving Your College Essay (Before Bringing it to the Writing Lab)

Beaker Beaker

I never cease to be amazed at the number of students who don’t use the Writing Lab — a free service (well, it’s included in your tuition) offered by my alma mater— especially since it doesn’t require making an appointment (which is why I hardly use the Lab at my current uni; I’m a fan of “first come, first served”).

After my first semester of community college, I ran everything by the on-campus Lab; however, I loved sending my creative pieces (for my poetry and creative writing classes) to the OWL (Online Writing Lab), as I received such thoughtful feedback. One of the pieces I submitted (“A Memoir of Mother Goose,” which has since been published on Medium) won first place in the college’s annual writing contest; the Writing Lab Supervisor helped me tighten up the structure, making it not only something I could be proud of but something that honored the people whose stories I told.

I’m the type of person who doesn’t want anyone to see my rough draft — only my polished one — and for this reason: the fewer small mistakes there are, the more likely that whoever reads my paper will catch the big mistakes. If your tutor is having to wade through too many misspellings, punctuation errors, and/or too much bad grammar, they might miss things like content and structure.

At the Writing Lab, I tutor college students (not just in English, but in history, science, and even graphic design — as they pertain to writing), I’ve noticed a lot of things students could do that would make their session even more productive and help them become better writers. I realize many hate writing, and that’s unfortunate, but to do well in school and at many jobs, you have to write capably, such as the cover letters and resumes before hire and the emails you may have to write after. 

As for college writing, here are 13 things all students should do with their paper before they come to the Writing Lab.

  • Outline your paper, on paper (not on your phone). This way, you’re not starting with a blank page. Craft your thesis and topic sentences. Once you have those and your paraphrases and/or quotations, you can structure your paper and fill in the blanks. However, if you just need help getting started, the Lab is great for that, too. After all, the Lab was where I learned how to construct an outline. Once I learned thesis statements, topic sentences, and how to break something down to the smallest of details, I was able to write any research paper. These things made me a better writer, for I learned how to structure a paper and avoid parallelism.
  • Read the story (or whatever it is) before you start writing about it. Read all your sources, highlighting and annotating as you go. This especially helps if the book is long and/or boring. Post-its are great for marking paragraphs in longer works. 
  • Bring a copy of the assignment. Just telling the tutor you have to write an essay won’t help them help you. Are you writing a reflection, a literary analysis, a research paper? Tutors need a frame of reference.
  • Run everything through spell check, even if Google Docs isn’t flagging anything. Just do it. Then, copy and paste your document into Word and run a check. Some people like the Hemingway app, but I think it sucks (even though I still use it on occasion). Maybe if it was called the Shirley Jackson app, I’d like it better; Grammarly also offers a free app. Even though I know how to spell, and everyone knows I know how to spell, it is quite embarrassing when I publish something with a misspelling, especially since a handful of my friends have English degrees.
  • Write your paper as soon as you can, so you can leave time to put your paper away for a day or two and go back at it fresh. Let it be a smelly pile of rubbish — just get it out of your head and onto the paper/screen. Take notes while in class (you don’t have to type them up, as you won’t use them all, thus saving a step); don’t just scribble what the professor says, but what other students say and what you are thinking about what they are all saying. This has been a lifesaver in my American Lit class (where I’ve only liked one of the four books we’ve read thus far).
  • Print out your paper, so you can make marks on it, which leads to the next step. 
  • Read your work aloud. I do this with every paper that comes into the Lab unless the topic is a sensitive one (we have a private room for that if need be). The eye catches grammar, punctuation, and misspellings; the ear captures more content-related elements, such as how your paper flows. One of the students I did this with was catching her mistakes as I read, and she was amazed at how much of a difference reading it aloud made. I want the students who come in to remember my advice and use it, so they won’t keep making the same mistakes (but rather, different ones).
  • Make the changes to your paper that the tutor suggested and then bring it back for another read, so he or she has a clean copy. Ideally, you will get a second (and different) set of eyes to coach you on how to improve your document and writing skills. I remember asking my supervisor why the students could only check two categories (e.g., grammar, punctuation, sentence errors, content, structure, formatting, and documentation) rather than get it all done in one sitting, and she told that students would be overwhelmed at all the changes they would have to make at once. 
  • Remove contractions (unless they’re in a direct quote). Look on the sunny side: Doing this will increase your word count. 
  • Connotation matters. For example, don’t refer to children as kids (also known as young goats). Use academic language. 
  • Be precise. Don’t use the words “thing” and “stuff.” Spell out what the “thing” is. For example, instead of saying, “Writing was her favorite thing,” say, “Writing was her favorite hobby, pastime, activity, etc.”
  • Don’t use filler words/phrases. Some examples are “very,” “really,” and “just” (the last of which I am guilty of). Rather than saying something is “very important,” say it’s “paramount.” As for phrases, “to be perfectly honest” is the one I hate the most because of course, you’re going to be perfectly honest with your reader.
  • Properly format and cite. You don’t want to lose points on something easy. If you think this stuff is silly, remember, it’s all about attention to detail. I still think of the poor lady who lost a ton of money on Wheel of Fortune for saying “Seven Swans a-Swimmin’”, cutting the g off the gerund.
  • Don’t leave empty-handed. Get handouts from the Writing Lab on the particulars that confuse you (commas seem to be everyone’s Achilles heel), and keep the ones concerning formatting and documentation on hand. Unless you write college papers all the time, you won’t remember all the nuances.
  • Remember that tutors are lifelong learners. I still have to get help with something I am unfamiliar with sometimes. I remember a professor telling me that the difference between an educated person and an uneducated one was that the former knew where to find the answer (and it’s not always Google or an algorithm).
  • Tutors will help you cite sources, but libraries will help you find them. When you find a source, copy and paste the link into a Google Doc so you can find it later. I’ve seen students who will have a great quote but will be unable to use it because they can’t find where they got it. If I’m getting my information from a book, I use bookmarks and sticky notes.

Doing these things before you go into the Lab just might make a letter grade of difference.

Poem-a-Day November 2018 Writer’s Digest Challenge #12. Theme: Disaster

Writing Lab Blues

Sometimes she just wanted to say,
“No capitalization,
No punctuation,
No service,”
or that the use of the words “thing” and “stuff”
& the overuse of “very” and “really”
qualified as “enough was enough.”
She was a 1000-piece puzzle
who lost a piece every time
she read an essay that sought to answer the question,
“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
So, she learned to start from scratch—
just as she had learned to bake—
for as much as she learned the Why
(even though she already knew the How),
she also learned that patience
was a learned virtue—
& that it was easier to do than teach.

2018 November PAD Chapbook Challenge: Day 12

I’ll Take Two of Everything

I hadn’t planned on getting two degrees when I decided to go to community college for my Health Information Technology degree, but with the Allied Health classes being hard to get into, to make up for what I thought at the time was wasted time (time spent learning something worthwhile is never wasted), I started taking writing and literature classes so I would still qualify as a full-time student and be eligible for all the scholarships I had already applied for.

I hate to say that such classes boost my G.P.A., and it’s not that they’re easy, they’re just fun for me.  They require work, sometimes a lot of work, but it’s fun work.  I try not to inwardly roll my eyes when people talk about their 3.9999999 G.P.A.s when they majored in English or History, because I might have much closer to that if I hadn’t had to take Pathophysiology and harder math classes (okay, hard for me).

But maybe I’m just whining.

So would I go back and change my major if I could?  No, because I need job security, and the healthcare field is where it’s at, but the journey has taken a lot longer than I thought it would, and a lot longer than it should have.  I won’t say that I’m a professional college student (a la Diane Chambers), but rather, a lifelong learner.  (I will graduate no later than spring of next year, one healthcare class, of course, being the hold-up).

Life is funny in ways.  It was because I could only get into one class in my major one semester that I ended up taking Creative Writing.

It was because I was one credit hour short of being a full-time student (the medical internships/practicums being only two credit hours) that I ended up in the one-credit hour College Publications course, which turned out to be the The Corsair student newspaper class.

And taking those classes led me to taking other classes, some of which led to scholarship awards, which enabled me to take even more classes, so I was building toward an A.A. before I realized I wanted one.

So circumstance kept pulling me in a direction that I knew wasn’t the most profitable, but led to the richest experiences. I didn’t become something else, I became more me. It was a creating as much as it was an uncovering.  I could write, but I needed focus and polish, and my college experience has given that tremendous gift to me.

I am incredibly blessed.

*

When I took two maths this last semester, it made me realize that I had no desire to build onto my A.S., but an A.A. Life was too short to spend in the math lab (clocked in 80 hours last semester, btw).  I will never be a scientist or a mathematician, but simply, a writer.  Creative writing won’t pay the bills (at least not anytime soon), but technical writing will (or working for myself as a writing tutor).

Sure, women in STEM is a Thing now–it’s all about breaking glass ceilings, but I don’t care about breaking class ceilings, only my own records. That’s what makes me happy.  That’s what some women who broke glass ceilings fought for–for women to have a choice in what they wanted to do with their lives, and writing is what I want to do with mine.

*

This semester, I am preparing to be the Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper (promoted from copy editor), as well as a student editor of the college’s annual literary journal, Hurricane Review (which I did last year).  I’ve been prepping stories and materials for the fall paper, as well coming up with posts for the Review’s Facebook page and designing the website (https://pschurricanereview.wordpress.com/).  It’s still in its infancy stages, but I’m hoping to learn some graphic design skills in the meantime.

I was reticent about becoming the EIC, but a part of me wanted to give back what I knew I could bring to it.  I really am Sarah Eagle-Eye when it comes to proofreading other people’s work, and, to a certain degree, my own.

What a way to end my community college journey, doing what I love.

Why I Write (among other things)

August has been a busy month.  My daughter’s first birthday was on the sixth.  Interestingly, my husband’s two sisters’ firstborn children were both girls, born on the seventh of August.  Tootie and Becca are only a year apart in age, but my daughter Hannah, is the true baby of the brood, with seventeen and eighteen years separating her from her eldest cousins.  I’d tried to hold out till the seventh, so as not to break with tradition, but it was so not happening.

In a way, I don’t mind so much, because it’s nice not having to share Hannah’s special day with anyone.  We had a small birthday party for her (an excuse to show her off and catch up with my husband’s side of the family).  We got a free “smash” cake from Publix, and though I rarely post pictures of my child on here, this one I have to share.

I just started school today, and this blog post is a brain break from algebra homework.  I’ve neglected my blog a bit for the past month, and all writing in general.  My friend, Mandy (who has inspired me in so many ways), has been reading my nursery rhyme collection for me; we’ve decided to see if we can find an art student (she works at a university) who would be willing to collaborate with me.

I would prefer to have illustrations to submit along with the stories (but I won’t let it stop me if I don’t); just like a photo on a blog catches the eye, it’s the illustrations that catches the eye when it comes to children’s books.  I’ve never been a fan of Dr. Seuss (story or illustration-wise), and I would be horrified if that style of garish, hideous drawings accompanied any of my work.  I prefer what I call softer illustrations–like a cross between Dick and Jane and Norman Rockwell; those types of drawings would complement my rhymes, which I believe have the charm of Mother Goose, still popular today.

However, these are the best young children’s books I’ve come across.  I never tire of reading them.

They are beautifully written, and beautifully illustrated, and by the same author, too.  Someday, I hope to be talented and skilled enough to do the same.

Though I write primarily because I love it, I came up with several other reasons why I do so:

Top 10 Reasons I Write

  1. I love to make !@#$ up.
  2. I love to kill off people in my stories–people I loathe in real life.
  3. I believe an imagination is a terrible thing to waste.
  4. I want something of my own mind (if not by my own hand; no writing longhand for me) to live on after I pass away.
  5. I am naturally good at it.
  6. Writing is a way to produce something wonderful, while consuming little.
  7. One can make lots of money doing it.
  8. I love to read, therefore, I love to write.
  9. I can do it in my skivvies (and look like hell while doing it).
  10. I…can’t…stop.